Widowspeak: Back to the City
Though the disastrous effects of the past few months have been all-encompassing and ruthless, it is hard to deny that the forced impasse on society has given those with the privilege of doing so the space and time to question the value of the parts of their lives that made up a previous sense of normality. Are we defined by the work that we do? Are the benchmarks that we base our happiness inherent to the human experience or forced on us by the system that we live by?
These questions echo loudly, and their importance only becomes more vital as we attempt to start rebuilding and living, but of course it's not the first time they've been uttered. For many living in a fast-paced city or working in a high-pressure industry, these kinds of questions resound daily. For Molly Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas, they're the exact same that informed their new Widowspeak record, Plum.
Ripe with imagery of fruit and sustenance, Plum's nine tracks explore the feeling of being out of step with the world whilst considering what the real fruit of our labour really is. It's in this context that Molly's interest in the Japanese philosophy of wabi sabi – understanding and accepting the way things are not how they should be – makes sense. Recorded with Sam Evian at his Flying Cloud Studio in the Catskill Mountains in Upstate New York, where the pair moved to around the release of their fourth record Expect the Best in 2017, the record has a gentle pace and warm texture that harks back to 2015's All Yours and gives the duo air to breathe. Molly and Robert left New York City for the rural life, plush with natural surroundings that clearly influenced their new record, set for release at the end of August.
But though the pastures and hills of the Hudson Valley might have made a peaceful spot to have stayed for lockdown, the couple felt the city inevitably pulling them back. We spoke to Widowspeak over the phone back in June about what it's like returning to a city in the midst of unrolling protests, learning to understand and address what's important as a band and as a person, and developing a partnership ten years and five albums strong.
How are you both keeping? How is being back in the city?
Molly: We moved back mid April, which was a crazy time to move, but it's good to be back in the city, even though it's not fully-opened. We lived in Kingston, on the Hudson River, we were there for two or three years, but I think when we wrapped our heads around it, I think that we did miss being able to be at the centre of music energy, and I dunno, in other professional areas I think that we were thinking, you know, we're not opening up a little business there or opening a studio or starting a farm, and so much of the energy upstate is a little bit like that, that's what people look for, and I mean that in the best possible way. We missed city energy and the idea of things that we want to do in life. For all the beautiful things about upstate New York, you can't actually just do everything up there, unless you have a lot of money and can do whatever you want.
Totally, I can imagine the Catskills being an idyllic place to be stuck in lockdown, but feeling like the city is calling you, especially as society has begun to open up and then of course all of the protests. What's New York like right now?
Robert: I think it's kind of exciting. The lockdown was weighing on everyone and now there's a sort of common cause. We wanted to move back to the city to feel like we're in the centre of the world again, so to speak.
Molly: There's a lot of solidarity because of shared experience. We lived in New York for a long time, and I wasn't here when 9/11 happened but I always heard how the city bands together when something happens, and I think right now and especially with the protests and ongoing coronavirus, there is this sense that the people are gelling together to support what's happening. On the one hand, it's happening to the entire world, but I feel more present being here, I guess.
Robert: Like a lot of my peers, the last ten years of my life have been a progressive radicalisation of my ideas, and to see them come to fruition at least in dialogue and rhetoric is exciting.
It's interesting because, and correct me if I'm wrong, it seems like the trajectory of Widowspeak fell into a sense of disillusionment after the first few records, particularly with music and music as a career, and it feels like now that you're ready to go back into it all of this has happened, and it's such a shame because you were excited again. Am I right?
Molly: Yeah, but I think the reason why we made this record wasn't because we were like 'Alright we're ready, it's time to go and take the world on!' It was more that music isn't always gonna be this upward trajectory; we always talk about it as the American Dream, but I guess it's the Capitalist Dream. I don't know, I think with that music and any sort of creative practice, if it's going to be something that you do your whole life then there're gonna be periods of your life where you're plateauing or deep in a valley of not being productive and fulfilled. Whether people are engaging with it or not isn't necessarily a reflection of its value or its worth, and I think that I had to have a reckoning with what my expectations were. Obviously I like playing shows and touring and love when people respond to music that we've made, but also understand that you're not gonna get that every time. It's possible that the thing you're doing, whether you're in a rock band or a totally outlier experimental musician, there are times where the audience is not gonna match up with what you're doing.
Robert: It wasn't so much that we decided we were gonna make that final push for stardom or something, it was more like we came out of the other side of a tunnel. We like to use the phrase, 'True believer or lifer' a lot, and we decided that we were gonna be lifers, but it's like integrating that into other aspects of our life was gonna be important. Whilst the music industry has been handicapped, we were sort of already mentally prepared for it to be a part of our lives than our entire lives. So in a weird way we prepared ourselves for this, without knowing it's coming.
What other parts of your life did you focus on since Expect the Best?
Molly: Honestly, I spent a lot of time doing service industry work, which is not very fulfilling –
Robert: Molly's a real deep thinker, and she's also the most observant and thoughtful person I know, and I think she just turned that lens on herself and did a lot of personal reflection, which I think is good.
Molly: I would say the last couple of years from me has been like, 'Wellllll'. Ha, I have to understand that I can't necessarily make a living being a full time musician. I mean, a certain type of person can be a full-time touring musician, and the rest of us will be a little worn out after years of doing that. Even moving back to the city was also motivated by the idea of working with people – whatever my day job is – I miss the idea of having community and being part of some shared momentum. I understand that pulling away from the world, which is kind of the last couple of years, even though it was healthy, I was definitely in a dark place and the last three years were getting past that.
Did this time have an evident effect on the writing of the album? I'm thinking of 'Breadwinner' in particular...
Robert: I think that everything that Molly was thinking about became the songs, and then coupled with the decision not to make it explicitly personal.
Molly: The idea of are you your career and success? Are you the amount of money that you're able to make, or the living that you have because of the work you do? Because the thing is everybody is working really hard, especially watching how the coronavirus is effecting people's livelihood and sense of security. You build your life around an idea, and that idea is not always iron-clad. Whatever you thought everything was gonna look like in a couple of years, it's not gonna look like that. But that doesn't necessarily mean that it wasn't worth something. I was just thinking about all the things that we give meaning, and the way it doesn't always align with what capitalism tells us it is, or any of these industries that are so human and creative, but when they become a business that changes things.
Why did you say that now feels like the only time you could let that song into the world?
Molly: The idea of all of this getting worse is entirely possible, and I wasn't trying to capitalise on it at all, but the idea of releasing it now, with the idea of bread... there's this experience that people are having right now where they're still receptive to the idea of the ways that we can change things. I don't know, I didn't want to wait for some moment where things got better in the event that they don't. A song is a weird thing. It's also ridiculous that everybody was making bread, because we had made the song using the bread metaphor because we had been making it for a while, but when everyone was talking about their sourdough starters and all that we were like, we have to release this as soon as we can.
I guess also to acknowledge sometimes the ridiculous nature of the short attention span in music; I didn't want it to come out in August and have people think I wrote it about that haha. I don't know, obviously you can't always tell the full story of something, and if this is gonna have any power or help any people at all... (condense this). 'I was reading something about how all of these music supervisors are saying 'Make sure you right happy songs right now, because people only want to hear positive things'. We're not in that trajectory, but it is interesting that for people in times of crisis, you don't know what's gonna be the most useful for them, or empowering or distracting.
Do you think that coronavirus changed the meaning of the record at all?
Molly: Oh, the whole record is a completely different record in the context of this. I was talking about the idea of dead-end work and not having the choice to get a job, and now I feel like it's crazy to even talk the idea of that, because everybody's unemployed.
Robert: With the pandemic and the city shutting down, I think it thrust a lot of people into the mind space that you occupy normally.
Molly: Especially with 'Money' or 'Plum', I feel like the songs are more about more direct observations or thoughts; watching what you thought was a sure thing become not a sure thing. Because everything's so unstable, it does change the meaning a little bit, because it brought into the perspective of a whole society, numerous societies that are unstable, but maybe that's a good thing. You have to tear something down in order to understand how you're going to rebuild it.
You also spoke about the culture of overconsumption – does this play into the imagery of fruits and sustenance, i.e plums, peaches, bread? What was your thinking behind this?
Molly: For sure, I think when we first started writing for the record, I almost envisioned a food concept record, because I was thinking a lot about the idea of sustenance. It can be beautiful, this idea of the world being this beautiful place that is prolific and giving, and I think that fruit and bread and these ever-present symbols of life, we almost take them for granted, especially within a capitalist world and global economy. That's where the idea of 'Sure Thing' was about, this idea of things that you can get at all times without even questioning where they come from...
Things that 'Grow on trees'...
Molly: Exactly, or things like cut flowers in the middle of winter. And the idea of fruit with a stone, that is ultimately a seed. There's this thing on the outside that we all look at, and then there's an underlying meaning to that, too. And that's people as well.
Do you have hope in the idea that, to quote 'Money', "You get back what you put in"? With fruit you sow something and reap the reward, whereas with money, you don't, and it seems like you're putting the two in clear contrast together.
Molly: Yeah, I definitely meant that line like, are you gonna get back your investment? Are you gonna be able to be successful in all of the time and effort you're putting into these things hoping they grow? For me personally, I'm trying to just focus on the experience of doing things for the joy of doing them. Like again, with making this record, maybe there's no fruit that's gonna come off of this tree, but the idea of trying to go through the experience was the most important part.
Robert: Maybe one of the best things that we actually took away from living in the Hudson Valley was, we had been running around and touring, and both of us are from fairly urban backgrounds, and 'slow-living' was the type of thing that we had been interested in but not really investigated. And on top of that was, in the Hudson Valley we were able to get all sorts of wonderful food, it's a really diverse local farming scene. Food is such an open ended metaphor that can be applied to a lot of things, so I think there was a natural move towards thinking about that.
Molly: It didn't end up turning into a food record, but I think in terms of being optimistic or not, I still believe that the thing that you're able to get out of it is going to be the experience of doing it and not necessarily the actual tangible result. It's not how many records you sell or how packed your shows are; at the end of the day are you proud of making the record and how it sounds? As music, you never know what people are going to respond to.
Is this where this concept of wabi-sabi comes in?
Molly: For sure, when I was having the fear and existential crisis, I feel like understanding that you're on your own journey, in the sense that 'No one is old, nothing is young', or whatever. But it's either becoming something or it's becoming nothing. And I guess the idea of a music career or your life is on its own path, and it's going to be what it's going to be. You can't expect more than that, you have to just be comfortable with it, and in the process hopefully you can make some art, have friends, cook some food for yourselves. Wherever your life will have meaning, it's not gonna be in the obvious places or benchmarks – like I swear to God I hate all those lists like 'Do this by this age', or 'Thirty for Thirty'. All these fucking people want to pay attention to how young you are and what you've accomplished by a certain age, but I wanna see more 70-year-old indie rockers releasing. At this point it's just absurd that we only talk about music in terms of youth culture. Bill Callahan is one of my favourite musicians and he's getting better with age.
It's funny you talk about food in the Catskills, because I see Hannah Cohen and Sam Evian, who also live upstate and worked with you on this record, are always posting videos of their amazing meals...
Oh yeah, Hannah is always cooking. When you have less distracting you and it's more affordable, you cook a lot more upstate. There's a lot less good takeout in Kingston, NY, though I will say.
That's a good segue into working with Sam. I'm imagining, perhaps over-romanticising, this music community in the Catskills that all knows each other. But how did that partnership actually come about?
Robert: The thing about the music community in the Catskills is kind of strange, because a lot of people go there to escape, so it's the kind of thing where in the radius there are a lot of musicians around, but everyone kind of keeps to themselves. But I was a big fan of Sam, and I didn't realise that I had played in bands with Celestial Shore, his first band back in Brooklyn, and then he moved up here. He was like an acquaintance from back in the day, and I got in touch to say 'Hey, what's up', and so when we wrote the demos for the record and tried to figure out where go, we were thinking of going somewhere exotic to get a new flavour or something.
Molly: By exotic I think we were literally talking about The UK, by the way.
Robert: Ha, I meant more somewhere that wasn't in my backyard. But then we decided that the best move would be to keep it somewhere that was easy and we could do weekends and make it feel natural. Then when we thought, 'Oh, Sam is here!'
Molly: Kingston is kind of the start of the Catskill Mountains, and he's straight up in the very centre of it. We have some friends that are across the mountain from him – it is very beautiful and idyllic up there, but it was close but far away enough from where we were actually living that it still felt that we were travelling to his studio and then go home at the end of the day and have that separation. He's also just so sweet and has such a very good energy, and I think that that permeated through the record. There was no stress. He has a very easy energy about him.
You've been working together for about ten years now. What have been the most significant changes that you both feel in terms of you collaboration together?
Molly: I would say that, in terms of how this record was done and also what brought us back to the city, we started the band as a band, playing a lot of small shows and saying yes to everything. But what happens is it stops being about playing shows all of the time, it's about planning tours and releases and things like that. And I think because we took a lot of time off and we had moved into the point where everything was very planned and intentional, and this record we tried to make with a little bit less focus on how it was going to come out. So on the one hand it's OK that we're flexible about everything, especially with the Coronavirus, but being in a city again, I've missed the tangible energy of playing and not knowing what's going to happen. Coming full circle, here we are not knowing anything about what's going to happen. It feels exciting again, because we're not really trying to reach some sort of place or playing music again hoping it turns in to something.
Obviously we're close, but I think it's become a lot more easy and comfortable, and it feels good. We're writing new music already.
Robert: I think that now Widowspeak is something that has its own identity and push, and I don't think that either of us is trying to use it to solely express our personal-ness. It's something that we respect and play to, as opposed to being a vehicle for our individual personalities.
Molly: Yeah, it's a band again. Even though it's still just the two of us, I think for a while I thought it had to be this extension of me personally and of who I was.
Plum is released 28th August on Captured Tracks. Listen to more from Widowspeak here.